English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Alternating currents

Q: I’m an Australian television producer. I keep seeing “alternate” used instead of “alternative,” as in, “If you would like to choose an alternate date and time, please contact our office.” Is the battle lost? Is “alternate” now an alternative for “alternative”?

A: American dictionaries now consider the adjective “alternate” an acceptable substitute for “alternative.” So in the US it’s not incorrect to speak of an “alternate date and time.”

But British dictionaries generally observe the traditional distinction between these two words. We’ve checked four British dictionaries and only one (Collins) lists “alternative” without qualification among the definitions of “alternate.”

In the US, “alternate” has increasingly taken over territory once reserved for “alternative.” If you’ve noticed this in Australia too, it could mean that the tendency is drifting to other English-speaking countries as well.

The history of these two words, however, isn’t as clear-cut as some people think.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for the adjective “alternative,” dating from 1540, uses the term to mean “alternate.” And the OED’s entry for the adjective “alternate” has citations going back to 1776 for the word used to mean “alternative.”

Oxford describes this “alternative” sense of “alternate” as “Chiefly N. Amer.” However, the dictionary’s three earliest citations are from British sources.

Despite the fuzzy origins of these two words, usage guides in both the US and the UK traditionally have recommended separate meanings for “alternate” and “alternative”—both as nouns and as adjectives.

Typically, “alternate” has been used to mean one after the other (or by turns), while “alternative” has been used to mean one instead of the other.

In her grammar and usage book Woe Is I, Pat illustrates this with a couple of sentences: “Walking requires alternate use of the left foot and the right. The alternative is to take a taxi.”

And of course people in the US as well as the UK still commonly use “alternate” and “alternative” in those senses.

But some broader uses developed in the US during the 20th century, and they’re accepted today in American English.

A good example is the use of “alternate” as an adjective to mean something like “substitute,” as in “We took an alternate route to Plainfield.”

In discussing this use “of alternate where alternative might be expected,” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage cites examples going back to the 1930s, and says the citations “begin to show up in some numbers in the 1940s and 1950s.”

In fact the Book-of-the-Month Club, with its “alternate selections,” has been routinely using the adjective this way for more than half a century.

And as a noun, too, “alternate” is commonly used in the US to mean a substitute, as in “He’s an alternate on the jury,” or “Rogers was sent into the game as an alternate,” or “The commission has five regular members and three alternates.”

“Alternative” has taken on some new roles too. As an adjective, for example, it’s often used to mean antiestablishment or out of the mainstream, as in “alternative school,” “alternative medicine,” “alternative newspaper,” and so on.

One meaning of “alternative,” however, hasn’t changed—the noun that means “other choice.” Think of sentences like “You leave me no alternative” (or Pat’s example, “The alternative is to take a taxi”).

Getting back to your original question, it appears that Americans are increasingly using “alternate” when they want an adjective and “alternative” when they want a noun.

As the Merriam-Webster’s usage guide explains, “alternative is becoming more and more a noun, and the adjective appears to be in the process of being replaced (at least in American English) by alternate.”

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), edited by R. W. Burchfield, makes a similar observation.

In American English during the 20th century, Burchfield notes, the adjective “alternate” has “usurped some of the territory of alternative in its ordinary sense” of one instead of another.

So, Burchfield says, “A route, a material, a lyric, etc., can be described as ‘alternate’ rather than (as in the UK) ‘alternative.’”

The usage you mention—“an alternate date and time”—is further evidence of the same trend.

But try not to think of this as a battle lost! Think of it as another step in the evolution of English usage. After all “usage” means exactly that—the way words are used.

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